Preview: Northland v Taranaki

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Saturday, September 5, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Luck has not been with Northland so far this season, with two of their losses coming at the hands of the two Championship heavyweights Hawke’s Bay and Wellington.

If losing against the two rampant outfits wasn’t enough, their 18-27 defeat to Southland saw them field an injury depleted team while the Stags in that match had the services of Lima Sopoaga.

This Sunday afternoon represents an ideal opportunity as the reigning Premiership winners are reeling after three losses in four games while the 47-game rivalry between the two unions is relatively close, with the visitors winning 29 to the Taniwha’s 17.

The Naki lost their three opening matches against Wellington, Auckland and Otago – the latter in New Plymouth as the Razorbacks put together a mauling masterclass in the second half to overrun Colin Cooper’s men - before struggling to their first win of the campaign against Counties last week.

So far in 2015 we have seen precious few glimpses of the class that propelled the Amber and Blacks to last season’s major title, if they are to defend their crown then winning their first away game of the campaign will be non-negotiable.

Sunday 6 September, 2.35pm at Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Played: 47, 1924-2014 |
Northland wins: 17 | Taranaki wins: 29 | Draws: 1

Last match: Taranaki 31 Northland 20, 18.09.14 in Whangarei (ITMC)
Last Northland win: Northland 26 Taranaki 19, 29.07.10 in New Plymouth (ITMC)
Biggest Taranaki score: 62 (62-11), 04.09.04 in Whangarei (NPC)
Biggest Northland score: 40 (40-11), 15.08.87 in Whangarei (NPC)
Biggest differential: Taranaki by 51 (62-11), 04.09.04 in Whangarei (NPC)

Squad update: Shane Neville is a confirmed absentee after injuring his calf last weekend but his absence is offset by the return of star flanker Dan Pryor.

Out of rugby since dislocating his elbow back in June during Investec Super Rugby, Dan will play alongside brother Kara who features in his blazer game (15 matches) against Taranaki.

Dan Bowden, another key player in the casualty ward, is close to a return but coach Richie Harris will not risk his playmaker returning early after being out of action for close to four months.

Exciting playmaker Marty McKenzie will start for the Port Taranaki Bulls this Sunday after sitting out the last two games due to a hip strain.

Other changes are in the forwards, with Rhys Marshall recovering from concussion to take his place at hooker. He is joined in the front row by Mitchell Graham and Angus Taavao.

In the backs, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi starts at halfback with McKenzie at first five-eighth. Captain Charlie Ngatai teams up with his Chiefs teammate Seta Tamanivalu in the mid-field with Codey Rei and Latu Vaeno on the wings. Kurt Baker retains the number 15 jersey.

Key players: Matt Moulds has been one of the key performers for Northland this season, taking the captaincy armband off Dan Pryor while the latter has been recovering from injury.

The hooker will want further support from a tight five that hasn’t fired many shots this season, but Namatahi Waa and Josh Goodhue are still learning their craft and will want to build on their displays so far this year.

However the back division needs to come to the party against Taranaki, Dan Hawkins and Sam Nock are another two youngsters but they need to dictate proceedings with more venom as the side has scored just three tries so far this season.

The return of McKenzie offsets the loss of Beauden Barrett, and the touring backs on paper look beyond Northland so they will be keen to impose their preferred running game against a winless side.

Up front the forwards will have soul searched during the week, they were taken to town by Otago in the final 40 minutes and would have reviewed the tapes where the blue and gold pack seemed to create driving mauls at will.

With Hika Elliot lurking on the bench, expect Taranaki’s big men in the form of Blade Thomson and Toa Halafihi to be fired up for this one – they will need to be as another loss could see them officially lose touch with the pacesetters in the Premiership.